Gate Theatre, London – until 11 March 2023
Receiving its UK premiere nine years after bursting onto the Off-Broadway theatre scene, Robert O’Hara’s multi-faceted, zesty, fierce chefs kiss of a play bowls in like the cheeky elder sibling of Michael R Jackson’s Pulitzer and Tony-winning A Strange Loop and this Broadway season’s succès d’estime Ain’t No Mo’.
All three pieces in turn owe a debt of gratitude to, and can trace a through line back to George C Wolfe’s 1986 The Colored Museum, epoch-making in its depiction of what it means to be Black in contemporary America. All four shows are essentially ambitious collages rather than traditional plays, and make their potent points with rollicking good humour, vibrant theatricality and moments of shock engineered explicitly to discomfort and wrongfoot their audiences.
O’Hara’s text, in common with Jackson’s masterpiece, also explores, with fabulous flamboyance, bracing intelligence and a willingness to chart dangerous waters, the intersection between being Black and gay. The result is something fiery, troubling, wildly entertaining, and occasionally impenetrable.
If Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu’s high-spirited staging initially seems to be intent on keeping us at one remove from the text by specifying neither the locations nor the scene titles the playwright provides (“Drinks And Desire”, “Conference”, “Ceremony”), and filling the open playing space with designer Milla Clarke’s vast, unadorned platform through, upon and around which, the variety of characters burst, sparkle and slay (the original production had multiple detailed sets), this abstract “less is more” approach eventually pays off.
For a start, the deliberate lack of specificity forces us to engage and listen, although that’s not easy at first: the acoustics of the Gate’s new Camden home aren’t the best, rendering significant portions of early parts of the show at best sixty percent intelligible, at least from where I was sitting. More importantly, it encourages the audience to use their imagination to fill in the blanks, and that, in tandem with bold performance choices, constant breaking of boundaries between cast and audience, and O’Hara’s extraordinary writing, freebasing between cerebral and outrageous, is where Bootycandy acquires its genuine power and specialness. If you don’t know what the title means, well…just you wait.
In a stroke of satirical brilliance, O’Hara binds together the bewilderingly disparate strands of the first half into a Black writers workshop, presided over by a blithely insensitive white moderator (“I’m wondering what you are hoping the audience comes away with after seeing your work?”), where it appears that everything we’ve so far seen has come from the pens of these people. It’s an intriguing, illuminating conceit that brings us up short.
Mainly though, Bootycandy is a splintered, meta-theatrical trawl, part celebratory, often brutal, through a variety of life experiences for Sutter, a Black gay Candide-like figure, seen in a variety of states and situations, ranging from questioning child to opinionated writer to sexual adventurer, that interrogate his place in the world and the way that this world perceives him. Prince Kundai, in a hauntingly impressive London stage debut, acutely charts Sutter’s progress from wide eyed innocence to hurt, rage, cynicism…it’s a hell of a role and it gets a hell of a performance. Kundai nails the comedy and the pain, and unflinchingly conveys Sutter’s dangerous edge alongside his cuddlier side, but is also unafraid to make the character fascinatingly unknowable when required. He’s a star in the making.
Just as inspired is Luke Wilson in a variety of roles, but especially joyous as a preacher whose audience-baiting sermon explodes in a riot of unexpected camp, and deeply touching as Sutter’s potty-mouthed and surprisingly switched-on Grandma. He’s worth the ticket price by himself. Roly Botha emerges as a thrilling shapeshifter, funny and chilling, and DK Fashola is a firecracker presence in a variety of roles, but nowhere better than as a mouthy, spicy maternal figure who attempts to shame Sutter into “manning up” in a scene that starts out as lethally funny but ends up just being lethal. At the performance I saw, assistant director Tatenda Shamiso was on with the script in place of an indisposed Bimpo Pachéco and was utterly fabulous, barely glancing at the script and matching the bravura of the other performances.
Exhilaratingly original and pleasingly ambitious in scope and execution, this is the theatrical equivalent to having a bucket of cold water thrown over you: it takes you out of your comfort zone, it’s refreshing, a bit shocking and might leave you trembling. Enthusiastically recommended, this Bootycandy is sweet and salty.